The Quick Version
Only get Windows if you have to, and you probably don't have to, even if you think you do. Why avoid it? Because the vast majority of computer crime happens on Windows and Anti-virus software is not stopping it. The alternatives to Windows (and there any many) are much safer and in some cases cheaper too.
What next? Read What Shape?
What This Page Shows
1. It's unwise to use Windows as a home computer because of all the Viruses and Junk Software.
2. Anti-virus software is reducing this problem, but its still affecting millions of people around the world.
3. There are now many good alternatives to Windows (its not just Macs). All of them are much safer than Windows.
4. Most of the alternatives are cheaper than Windows.
5. You don't need Microsoft Office to create and edit Word, Excel & PowerPoints and to share with your work and friends.
6. Don't buy Windows because its what you are used to. With Windows 8 onwards they changed it all.
7. You need to priorities security and backups when replacing your home computer. That rules out Windows for most folks.
Windows or Not?
The Golden Rule
"Only get Windows if you have to, and you probably don't have to, even if you think you do."
Its not a snappy catch phrase, its never going to make it as a song lyric and its a bit negative in sentiment, but it sure seems to be the right approach for people buying home computers.
The default is people think home computer and they buy Windows, because that's what they have always done. For most people doing normal home things, that's the wrong decision and its going to cause them pain and discomfort. It's such a problem I have devoted this whole section to the simple question: do you get Windows or not?
It used to be the case that if someone gave you that kind of advice it meant they were a Mac Fanboy (probably working in design, wearing a black poller-neck, driving a Saab, you know the type), but things have moved on. For most of the last 30 years Windows and Mac were the only real choices for home computers. Now there are all sorts of things like iPads, Chromebooks, Android Tablets and even smartphones that people use as their main computers at home. There has been an explosion of choice and some of this stuff is absolutely superb.
Why Avoid Windows?
The killer reason is security. Every time you watch the news and you hear stories of millions of computers being infected, that's Windows. An enormous criminal industry has grown up attacking this one type of computer. These guys are making billions of dollars a year scamming normal folks trying to use a computer at home. Think your anti-virus is going to save you? The sad thing is, all those victims had anti-virus software as well. I saw a headline on the front page of a computer magazine and it simply said "Windows Security isn't working", sadly, they're right.
Of course there's no such thing as perfect security, but can I claim that the alternatives are thousands of times less likely to get infected (maybe hundreds of thousands of time, maybe even more)? Yes, that's the sort of difference we are talking about, it really is dramatic. Read here for an explanation of why.
Although security is the killer reason to avoid Windows, there are two others:
Just in case you are too shy to ask what a backup is (that happens more than you might think) it means a second copy of your information. Imagine you had a filing cabinet full of all your stuff (photos, bills, etc) and every time you put more stuff into the cabinet a gang of invisible magic elves took a copy and duplicated to a filing a spare filing cabinet over at your mum's house. What's more, if something bad happened to your filling cabinet (it burnt down) the elves would copy everything back from the spare. I might have left out a few of the technical details here, but in essence thats how modern automatic backups work. You put some photos from your camera onto your computer and quick as a flash a copy is sitting in an encrypted vault at Microsoft, Google or somewhere similar. It's marvellous.
The trouble is, Windows does not automatically do this (the alternatives mostly do). So when you have a disaster (and all things are mortal, especially the hard drive in your computer where all the files are kept), you will lose the family photo collection, all your business records, your coursework, your music, that unfinished novel you're working on. To be fair to Windows you can add such backups and people always means to get around to doing so, but they don't. So the second most common call we get in the workshop: people having lost all their files. Not because they lacked a way to back up, they all have external hard drives and memory sticks that their brother-in-law told them to get, they just forget to use them, or get them stolen along with the PC, or they only store their files on the external drive instead of as well as the internal drive. File loss is as much of a plague as the infections.
It used to be the case that the only alternative to Windows was Mac and that was double the price. Now there are things like Chromebooks at half the price of a Windows Laptop and some tablets at half the price of a Chromebook.
Are you still sure you want Windows?
Why get Windows?
The killer reason to get Windows (even despite the security problems) is if you have some software or hardware that you simply have to run and it only works on Windows. That's actually very common when using in a PC in a company. They often have had software specially written to run some aspect of their business and it only runs on Windows.
Of course these pages are not about what's right for businesses, this is all about the home market. In the home market its actually quite rare to find a piece of software that people simply "have" to run. Having said that there are plenty of pieces of software that people think they have to run, but that's down to a simply misunderstanding. The classic one is Microsoft Office (Word, Excel etc). Man walks into a shop and asks the assistant "Can this tablet run Microsoft Word", assistant says "no". Man buys Windows Laptop and within a week its infected with a bunch of nasties (don't tell me that doesn't happen, we get plenty in the workshop that don't last 24 hours, let alone a week). Assistant is happy because he makes more commission on the laptop than the tablet.
Here's how it should have gone: Man walks into a shop and asks "Can this tablet creat and edit Word and Excel files?". Assistant says "Yes, there are various apps in the appstore for doing that sort of thing. They are either free or don't cost much. Try a few and see which one you like best.", and they all live happily ever after.
The misunderstanding is confusing the program (Microsoft Word) with the file format (.docx). People are used to separating those two things with pictures. You have pictures on your computer (often .jpg format) and you can use all sorts of programs to access them, edit them, email them, print them, all sorts. You don't have to have a piece of software from "Jpg Incorporated" (if such a company even existed) to do something with the pictures. It's getting that way with the Word and Excel files. Even your smartphone can access and edit an Excel spreadsheet with the right app (its just a bit fiddly to do your edits because of the screen size) and Microsoft need never have written a program to allow it. So we very cauious of people who say of any type of computer "But it doesn't run Microsoft Word", they could just be missing the point.
One more example to prove the point: A surprising number of people say to me they have to have Family Tree Maker software, which is only on Windows. Therefore they have to have Windows and hang the security problems. This is because they have spent a gazillion hours collecting names and dates and feeding them into the Family Tree package (I can't get the enthusiasm up myself). What they actually mean is they want to keep their records, not the software that displays it. These days you can load genealogical records into the ancestry.com website and access it on anything. Or use the GEDCOM file format to move data from one genealogical program to another. You don't need the specific Family Tree Maker program that only runs on Windows. You need the data.
If you can transfer the data to the platform you want, you are unshackled from Windows. Hence the mantra:
"Only get Windows if you have to, and you probably don't have to, even if you think you do."
Windows is not Windows any more
The other reason people chose Windows is familiarly. It's been around long enough that many people have hardly ever used a different type of computer. How scary to try something completely new. Here's the thing: Windows is something completely new. If you think you know Windows, expect to be in for a big surprise when you sit down with Windows 8 or 8.1. They've changed it all! It might have the same name on the packet, but its not what you would call Windows.
All versions of Windows from the ancient version 1 in 1985 right up to Windows 7 (2009 to present) looked like they came from the same family of stuff. Then in 2012 Windows 8 hit and they changed it all around. It's not like Microsoft did this just for laughs (although some have speculated). They did it because they are well aware of the trends I am writing about in these pages. They saw the rise of tablets and how it was killing their own sales. So they created a new Windows that would be good if to run on a tablet. Unfortunately in doing so they created something that was a dog's breakfast when used with a mouse and keyboard. People hated it. Don't take my word for it. Ask your friends and then stand back for the vitriol if they have Windows 8.
The take up rate of Windows 8 in businesses has been near zero. That's interesting because these are people who have choice. If you go into a shop they will sell you Windows 8 and tell you thats your only option (which is a big fat fib, but thats another story). Businesses can choose. They all just ignored Windows 8 and carried on with Windows 7. If you ask in the shops about this they will say it's all much better with Windows 8.1 (because that's all they have to sell you). Its true, its a little better. Why? Because they have moved it a little closer to how it was in Windows 7. Look at the plans for what Microsoft are doing with Windows 9 and its moving it back closer still to Windows 7. They really did mess this up that badly. You think Windows Vista was unpopular, Windows 8 has set new standards of loathing.
If you are used to previous versions of Windows you will probably find the user interface of Chrome OS or a Mac is more familiar than Windows 8 and 8.1.
A trend we see in people's homes in they buy these machines and then don't use them much. They find excuses to read their email and surf the internet on their phones and tablets and only use Windows 8 when they have to. We're seeing laptops that have not been switched on for months. The same trend is there on our websites. The logs tell us what type of computer is reading our webpages. Windows 8 barely registers, no matter how many have been sold. Other folks with websites report exactly the same.
The other big change is in Microsoft Office (that's the umbrella name for Word, Excel, Powerpoint etc). Depending on what version of Office you are coming from, you could be in for surprise in how much it has changed. All versions of Microsoft Office up to and including 2003 had a particular style and layout to them. The next version after that (2007) and all subsequent ones had a radical redesign. If you buy Microsoft Office because that's what you are familiar with, expect to be spending a fair amount of time finding where everything is. It's not that they have really screws it up (like they did with Windows 8), it's just different.
Products like Google Docs and Libra Office (both free products) are closer to what many people are used to in the mouse and keyboard environment.
So don't assume that by buying Windows you are going to get a system that is familiar. Whichever way you turn you will be faced with change, so why not put aside the past and find the best option for you going forward?
How do you choose?
Whenever you purchase anything you weigh up unconnected advantages and figure out what you want you want to buy. You might optimise for price (buy the cheapest), or performance (buy the fastest), or appearance (buy the sexiest looking), or seduction (which will make me most attractive to hot people). The problem I see with people buying home computers is they give far too much weight to the wrong criteria. They buy Windows because a) habit and b) it doesn't close off any options. I say that's ignoring the two enormous pink elephants with green poker-dots in the room: security and backups.
Think of it like this: Instead of a car you decide to drive around in a 50 seater coach, just in case one day your daughter gets married and you need to ferry the guesses around. For years either side of the big day you will be paying more in fuel, insurance, servicing and have nowhere to park. Clearly this is daft, this is optimising your purchasing of personal transportation on the wrong criteria. You are placing your bets on something that might happen and in the process messing up the your experience for the things you want to do on a daily basis.
Remember what I do for a day job: I run a company focused on helping people with their computers in the home market. I see the consequence of people choosing Windows all the time. Two things keep happening: people's Windows computers get trashed by Viruses and Junk Software, people lose files that are precious to them because of a lack of backups. That's just not happening on the alternatives.
I say whatever you buy put security and backups at the top of your priority list (closely followed by seduction). If a system does not have good answers for these two things, bin it. Of course the one exception is if you have a piece of software that you absolutely have to have that only runs on Windows (post a question the Forums here before deciding thats the case, there might be perfectly good alternatives you do not know about). Just make sure you need to read my article on how to lock down Windows, but don't assume that is any substitute for buying a secure system in the first place.
For some people buying Windows is the correct answer. If, for example, you are a technology enthusiast who has to have all the latest gadgets the thought of not being able to update the software in the latest talking vacuum cleaner would be a nightmare that would keep you up at night. The problem is, many such folks will automatically recommend what is right for them to everyone else as well.
My word, that was an awful lot of text to devote to the simply question of if you should get Windows or not. I think it was worth it. Simply because buying Windows is the default thing that people do, even when it is not in their best interests. I see the results of that all the time and its not nice. Take time to look at the alternatives, you might be pleasantly surprised.
But this is all nonsense!
The slaying of myths and misunderstandings
There's a staggering amount of misinformation and urban myth doing the rounds on the subject of home computers, often nonsense that is most definitely against your best interests. So lets prepare you for when someone who “knows” about computers comes knocking by covering the popular hogwash in advance.
Neil obviously just hates Windows!
It would be easy to read the text above and assume I have some personal vendetta against Windows. That's not it. For the record, my favourite user interface for a keyboard and mouse system is Windows 7 (not Windows 8, that's a dog breakfast and universally hated, although it can be greatly improved with Start8 and ModernMix from Stardock). But of course I'm super careful about what I install on it, use it in a very locked download way and its just one of the types of computers I use.
Where I am coming from is I have spent the last 10 years trying to keep normal folks safe from computer crime as they use a computer at home. It's like we are trying to cross a chasm with a vicious rapid at the bottom. Windows is the rope bridge taking us across. I am a guide showing people where its safe to tread and lashing in new bits of rope to hold things together. I get most of them across, but some fall because they don't listen, some fall just because its a wobbly old bridge with so many gaps. Many try to get across without a guide (most of them fall).
All the time I have been doing this various builders have been constructing other bridges across the chasm, using modern materials like steel and carbon fibre. They don't always carry all the same traffic the old rope bridge does, and people don't use them because their are familiar with the old ways, but no one falls on the new bridges. One day I woke up and tought "What the hell am I doing pouring all this effort into protecting the old ways? Why don't I just help people find a safer bridge?"
So, no, I don't hate Windows. I hate the scumbag criminals who will encrypt first 5 years of a baby photos and demand a ransom of the mother to get them back (yes that is a real life example from my day job). It particularly hurts because I know about about how these things work and know that it simply does not have to be that way. The technology is capably of eliminating this problem and I want to be part of the solution.
Of course I should point out that the question of what type of computer you should use has become ridiculously tribal. If I object to something in how Windows works there is a large group of people (us geeks call them fanboys, and yes, that word is an insult) who will assume that means I am a fanboy for Macs. Equally, say something negative about the Mac, that tribe will get all very over excited and condemn everything I say, not just on that topic, but on everything I have ever said on any topic (honestly, fanboys really are that stupid. If you have not come across fanboys you really should ready my article on the subject, it will help you understand a lot of the comments you read on the Internet about all sorts of things). You can see those types of tribes starting to form around the new platforms, people who would only ever use an iPhone, others who think that's heresy and would only use an Android device.
Of course serious geeks don't think that way. We use all the different systems and enjoy what's good about each one in turn. If something is good, we say, if something is bad, we say. Windows has much that is good about it, but giving it to normal folks to play with in the home is silly, because of the security and backup issues.
But my Work PC is not infected and that runs Windows!
This is such a popular misconception I wrote an article just on this topic. Have a read of Business PCs to understand why the lessons you learnt from your work PC tell you nothing about the security of your home PC.